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Goodbye Africa, see you in 2018

Johanna, who curates our Africa anthropology collections (and is a passionate football fan) gives us a glimpse at Africa, football and our collections.

Yesterday saw Africa's last hopes for World Cup glory with the defeat of both Nigeria and Algeria in two characteristically nail-biting games. A terrible shame in my view. Both games taken to the wire as exciting and creative football lost out to defensive play and predictable set-pieces.

But then again, I am biased. Goodbye Africa, see you in 2018.

Normally, I would not advocate causing intentional harm, but nothing made me happier than reading about Nana Kwaku Bonsam, the Ghanaian witch doctor responsible for Christiano Ronaldo’s knee injury.

In an interview on the Kumasi-based Angel FM, he described how he had spent months manufacturing a spirit called Kahwiri Kapam to work on Portugal's demise. It looks like it worked, though sadly not to Ghana's benefit. At least Ronaldo will be less pleased with himself now his team has been sent home, along with our own collection of not-quite-up-to-the-mark heroes.

Football is everywhere in Africa.

I spent the weeks leading up to the World Cup in Freetown, Sierra Leone, where taxis are adorned with hand-painted signs promoting the drivers' Premier League team, usually Chelsea and, for their sins, Manchester United.

Children play football as soon as they can walk and, when they are older, save up to purchase tickets to watch games in small, packed rooms, with tiny old TVs powered by generators.

I crammed in to watch Brazil comprehensively beat Panama in a friendly, with Chelsea's Willian's final goal met with raucous cheering.

Sierra Leone's own team, the Leone Stars, failed to qualify so many Freetowners chose to support England, sharing our frustration as the hopefuls faffed about on the pitch in their fetching white kits to no avail.

Our collection includes objects that highlight Africa's love of football:

This beautiful football from Uganda is made from locally-sourced materials. Its outer surface consists of carefully woven banana leaf fibers which are tough enough to withstand even Lionel Messi style shots at goal.

Another Ugandan football made from twisted banana leaves. This one is even tougher than the above. I wouldn’t want to take this one on the head!

African wax cloth designers make new patterns to commemorate important events. This example from comes from Mali and commemorates the 1990 World Cup in Italy.

Mali played their first World Cup qualifying match in 2000, but have as yet failed to get through. Fingers crossed for 2018!


Refugee Week at the Horniman

On Saturday 21st June, children from Action for Refugee Lewisham’s Rainbow Club performed music they had been practicing with Fairbeats! for museum visitors. The Horniman has worked with Fairbeats! many times in the past – they have real expertise at teaching music to children.

This year they had something special planned. One of the mothers from the group, Josephine Chukwujekusu, taught the children an Igbo song, called Nne, Nne or Mother, Mother.

This song tells of a girl who walks to the well to collect water carrying a heavy and expensive clay pot. As she leaves, her mother tells her to be careful and concentrate so she doesn’t break it.

On the way back the girl is distracted by her friends, she trips and the pot smashes. In the song, she asks what should she do: should she run away or go home and face her mother?

In preparation for the Refugee Week event, the group visited the Horniman to look at some clay pots in the Hands on Base and come up with inspiration to make this banner to hang behind them during the performance.

On the day, Josephine and the children performed the song to a large audience at the Horniman. The day also featured brilliant performances from the children on ukulele, fife and singing plus wonderful headdresses created especially for the occassion. Well done to all the children who took part!

#MuseumMatch kicks off at the Horniman

As World Cup knockout stage gets started this weekend, we're taking to Twitter to share some of our collections from the competing countries in the run-up to each match.

#MuseumMatch pairs up some of the most interesting, intriguing or inspiring objects from our stores and asks our followers to pick the one they'd like to find out more about.

We'll share each pair and count the responses for 90 minutes, announcing which object gathered the most interest at the end and revealing a little more about both.

On Friday 27 June we'll be sharing objects from countries playing this weekend, starting with a Brazil and Chile #MuseumMatch in the morning, followed by the weekend's 3 other pairs.

We'll be sharing more #MuseumMatch pairs over the next two weeks as the World Cup knockout stages continue.

Head on over to Twitter to follow us and the #MuseumMatch hashtag to join in.

Five Go Collecting: Chinese influence in Cuba

Martin is one of the five modern-day collectors selected by the Royal Anthropological Institute to take part in the Horniman Collecting Initiative. Here he blogs about the commission of a new object for our Anthropology Collections.

I first applied for the RAI Horniman Collecting Initiative so I could work with a Cuban priest of Chinese descent who is, among many other things, a gifted Lucumí bead artist.

Lucumí (also known as Santería, also known as Regla de Ocha) is one of the most prominent religions in Cuba. It is characterized by its recognition of both Catholic saints and West African (Yoruba) deities known as orishas.

My research has shown that there is not only Catholic or European elements to the orisha, but also significant Chinese ones.

Like other parts of Latin America and the Caribbean, Cuba recruited more than 125,000 young Chinese men through indenture following the collapse of slavery. They began arriving from 1847 to work on the sugar plantations. By sharing the same living and working spaces with people of African descent and mixed-race heritage, their cultures met and mixed. Many stayed permanently and intermarried.

I am interested in how these Chinese immigrants and their Afro-Sino Cuban descendants influenced Afro-Cuban religions. These Chinese influences have not been subject to any serious academic attention before. My research explores the lives of contemporary Afro-Chinese priests and practitioners, their collective memories and related material culture.

Many of the orisha priests I interviewed of Chinese-Cuban descent are also skilled artisans. They produce captivating religious artifacts that blend West African and Chinese art forms and crafting techniques. Stunning wooden sculptures and beadwork pieces frequently adorn orisha shrines and altars in the Lukumi religion.

José Francisco Ung, Omi Atorunwa, also known as ‘El Chinito de Regla’ lives in Havana and is has been initiated as an orisha priest for more than 47 years. I approached José and had asked him what item he would like to make for the Horniman’s collection.

I wanted José to decide what object he felt he would like to contribute. He decided that he would like to make objects related to his protective orisha, Yemaya, a deity of the sea and of motherhood.

Over a couple of days, José sketched out a few designs for possible items. Among the candidates, one of them was a beaded and lidded urn. The vessel is used to house the consecrated emblems of the orisha following priesthood initiation. It is also is the focus of worship and sacrifice.

José came up with four different designs, each distinct, and whose symbolism is related to the worship of Yemaya.

Unfortunately, the beads needed to complete such a project are not available in Cuba. After I left, I purchased the beads and they have now made their way back to José so that he can finish his piece for the Horniman’s collection.

I am returning to Cuba this summer and will further document the process of making the piece selected for the museum, as well as delivering it to the Horniman itself.

My next post will follow after my trip to Cuba. I look forward to sharing with you what José has crafted.

Stag Beetle Rescue

It's not every day you get to handle rare wildlife, but a few of our staff members got to do just that as they helped an impressive male stag beetle out of a sticky situation.

Our troubled insect was first spotted crawling between the cacti in our new Extremes Garden display.

Stag beetles spend most of their life as larvae, hidden in dead wood while they mature for up to 7 years. We already know they live in our Gardens, as larvae and adult beetles have been spotted down on the Nature Trail although it is rare to see them out in the open.

If you look closely at the picture above, you can see the beetle is trailing a piece of matted hair or cotton. Although we didn't notice at first, the material was tangled around the beetle's legs.

It wasn't long before he found himself attached to one of the spikey specimens planted in the gravel, leaving him vulnerable to any passing predators. Animal Assistant Rhianna jumped in with some scissors to cut him free.

The material was firmly attached to the beetle's joints with dried mud, tying its legs together and making it impossible to walk. Rhianna carefully picked it off piece by piece to avoid damaging the delicate legs underneath.

Having the beetle in our hands meant an excellent opportunity for some passing visitors to get a close look at this rare animal, and talk a little about the species.

After making sure he was now able to walk freely (and after everyone managed to get their photographs) we planned to leave beetle in a safer spot with a little more cover.

However, he had other ideas, and quickly took himself off in the air.

Hopefully to stay away from sticky mud and dangerous human rubbish.

If you think you've spotted a stag beetle in our Gardens, or anywhere else in London, be sure to fill in London Wildlife Trust's Stag Beetle Survey. The trust provides lots of information about how to recognise these beetles, their importance to wild habitat in Britain and what's being done to protect them.

Community Symposium 2014: Families and the Museum

Last month the Horniman's Community Learning team held their annual symposium, this year focusing on what we offer to local families. Rachel updates us on what went on.

The idea behind our Community Symposium is to invite local service providers and community organisations to come in and find out more about what the Horniman currently does, while we get some ideas about what we could do to support their work.

This year we wanted to concentrate on building links with organisations that provide services for families. We had a good turn out, with representatives from organisations such as Homeless Families Support Team, The Children’s Society and Parental Mental Health Team.

To start the day we introduced the family programme at the museum. This is a busy and popular public programme - the majority of it free - that includes all the regular holiday and term time session such as Nature Trail Discovery, Art Makers, Hands On sessions, storytelling, the Busy Bees group and much more.

We hope there is something to interest everyone, and you can check out what's coming up next in our Calendar.

We also ran 3 workshops giving an overview of the museum. Julia took people around the galleries to see all the family-friendly displays available, such as Nature Base, while Rose introduced the Gardens and demonstrated the variety of family learning activities you can enjoy here.

Participants also got to go into the conservation studios and meet members of the Anthropology department – Robert , Fiona, Tom and Sarah.

The curators had selected objects that they felt represented the experience of families around the world, and used these as the basis for a discussion about the way these experiences resonate with local families today.

A particular favourite was the Inuit Sealskin Parka (Object no. 6.12.65/594). Robert pointed out how the hood has enough room to carry a child aged up to 3 years old on the mother’s back whilst she went about daily work.

This led to discussions about our own cultural ideas of ‘attachment parenting’, of childcare and working mothers and of the different resources that cultures put in to bringing up healthy and happy children.

We hope that everyone who attended this year's Symposium learnt something about how their group can benefit from our work.

Art Attacks with a Mosquito Kite

Alejandro is one of the five modern-day collectors selected by the Royal Anthropological Institute to take part in the Horniman Collecting Initiative.  His fieldwork is concerned with alternative health campaigns against dengue fever, especially those which employ art as a medium. Here he explains his work with a mosquito-shaped kite in Medillín, Colombia.

Myself and my colleague, Andrés Ramírez Valencia, had grown tired of the boring public health campaigns against dengue fever, with their poorly designed cartoon books and posters. One afternoon, we asked ourselves: how can we produce a non-conventional public health campaign?

We asked ourselves what might happen if we designed a mosquito-kite? Mosquitoes have been seen as symbols of disease for thousands of years, and the visual nature of kites can break down cultural and linguistic barriers.  A mosquito-kite might help people think about dengue (and its prevention) in new ways.

The dream became reality with the project ‘A Couple of Wings in Mind’. We travelled with our first mosquito-kite to some kite festivals in America and Europe, and carried out interventions in Medellín and its surrounding areas.

We wanted to go beyond the critique of the traditional discourse of health campaigns, re-thinking how mosquitoes and dengue are understood to interact with people as well as how kites interact with people.

Based on our early experiences and knowledge from five months of fieldwork in Medellín, Colombia, Andrés and I re-designed the kite to reproduce the form and movement of the mosquito, known as ‘zancudo’ in Colombia, which carries dengue fever (Aedes aegypti).

With this second version of the kite, we are trying to reach a wider audience and encourage a greater number of participants. We have recently started something that we call ‘mosquito art attacks’ - a series of art interventions in different parts of Medellín city.

When Andres and I began this project, we wanted to ask people to make drawings on the kite’s surface about what dengue, health campaigns or mosquitoes mean for them. However, once we finished the kite, we realised it was very beautiful and we thought that it would look better without drawings all over it.  Instead, we held kite-making workshops where the participants were able to paint their own kites.

As a strategy for involving children in our mosquito art attacks, we designed small kites on acetate.  

These were excellent at recreating the form and movement of the zancudo.

Mosquitoes are connected with ideas such as sleeplessness, dreams or nightmares. However, mosquitoes are not as harmless as people used to think; in Colombia they are also symbols of death.

As Myriam, who is a farmer that sells her own products at the streets of Medellín, commented:

“A zancudo is not as harmless as you can imagine, because it can bring death to some people, is it true or not? If you just look at it, you will say: nothing will happen, but it’s not true, because it does happen.”

Our next move was to take the kite to a cemetery located in the north of Medellín. Besides the symbolic idea of ‘death,’ where else would you see more flowers, vases and water containers together – a perfect breeding ground for the zancudo, as shown by previous public health campaigns.

We were unsure how people would react to our kite in this setting, but after flying it for some minutes, taxi drivers, children and even mourners approached us to play with the kite. They also made comments about mosquitoes, dengue and the poorly designed campaigns that health authorities have produced in the past.

In Colombia, cemeteries are not only places that keep ‘loved ones alive’; they are appropriated by the living for other purposes, and our intervention also shows different ways of perceiving them.

Our latest ‘art attack’ did not go quite so smoothly. Although we knew Medellín was a city full of inequality and social conflict, we were surprised to learn we needed to ask permission to fly a kite in a public park of the city. Security officers identified our mosquito-kite as a ‘dangerous weapon’, at first not allowing us to fly it.

However, we felt this intervention was an important one, and the kite was a perfect tool for interacting with people in different socio-cultural contexts. After a long discussion with five officers, and once security cameras had taken many photographs of the kite, they realised we couldn’t do anything dangerous with it. We were finally allowed to fly the kite for 10 minutes.

As you can see, this art attack quickly drew an audience.

This project would not have been possible without the economic support of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland and the Horniman Museum and Gardens through the Horniman Collecting Initiative. An example of this kite will be presented to the Horniman at the end of the project.

Watch a film made with people in Medellín as part of Alejandro’s fieldwork.

To learn more about this project, take a look at Alejandro’s website and blog.

Horniman Inspiration: Cheryl L'Hirondelle

Back in April, Canadian singer and sound artist Cheryl L’Hirondelle spent a few weeks at the Horniman as an artist in residence. We blogged about her work and final performance in May. Now, Cheryl herself has written for us, looking back on her time working with our Music collections.

As an Indigenous community-engaged singer/songwriter and interdisciplinary artist whose creative practice investigates the nexus of Cree worldview and contemporary time-space, my time at The Horniman Museum and Gardens was particularly engaging.

Invited by Professor Helen Gilbert (Royal Holloway, University of London) to conduct an iteration of my SingLand/SongMark project, I set out to sonically map the physical location and develop a plan to work with the various rattles and drums from Indigenous Nations. The aim was to breathe life into the objects, capturing their story and essence in song.

I was very happy to visit the instruments I selected and sang to them a special ceremonial Cree song, befitting the occasion. Two of the instruments were particularly significant: a very old elk rattle and an equally old deerskin drum from the plains where my ancestors are from. I also added a couple more instruments to my visit thanks to access to the Hands On Base.

In the end I composed five new songs and three videos and presented them at the final performance at The Roxy and Millennium Bridge. One song sings the Pueblo drum as a victory or freedom song. I made a quicktime video from the drum’s point of view, showing what it sees as it lives in the Horniman's Music Gallery.

The final song is a very important part of my experience: the song from the elk rattle. During my visit with it, I used binaural recording gear, arranging two microphones to create a 3-D stereo sound which creates the sensation for the listener of actually being in the room with the performers or instruments. The elk rattle uttered a soft sound, the pebbles inside audibly moving. It was like the spirit of the rattle came to life, and the song it inspired is one I will continue to sing.

I am so very grateful to have had the chance to visit with and sing the instruments and spend time discussing the collection with Margaret Birley (Keeper of the Musical Instruments) and Mimi Waitzman (Deputy Keeper). Big thanks also to Marie Klimis, Program Development Coordinator for being my daily host over the three-week residency and to Helen Gilbert and her amazing team (Rose, Dani, Sergio and Melissa) for planning and facilitating it.

Building the Extremes Garden

Wes, our  Head of Horticulture, lets us know what went in to creating our new outdoor showcasing exploring plants with some amazing adaptations to extremely arid environments.

The big challenge to build our Extremes Garden was to find suitable plants to display, as they are not the type that can be picked up in your local garden centre, and we needed something especially striking as a centre piece.

Fortunately my old mate David Cooke, manager of Kew Gardens' Temperate House helped us out, and loaned a Giant African Cycad, Encephalartos altenstenii.

Cycads are amazing plants that survived when the dinosaurs inhabited the planet; they actually predate the evolution of flowering plants and produce cones rather than flowers as reproductive structures.

Glasshouse manager Kate Pritchard from Oxford Botanic Gardens also kindly loaned us two lovely Organ Pipe Cactus that have also made a big visual impact on the garden.

Other plants came from Southfields specialist cacti nursery; gold medal winners at Chelsea this year. The amazing Architectural Plants Nursery in Horsham also provided us with a nice selection.

We paid a visit to a private nursery/collection owned by Cacti expert John Pilbeam (Connoisseurs' Cacti) to source the remaining smaller specimens.

After a lot of deliberation we positioned the plants. They were planted in their pots because they are only going to be on display until September (when they will need to be moved inside for the Winter) so it saved disturbing their root balls which cacti in particular don’t appreciate.

We then laid a weed-suppressing membrane around the plants and over the surface of the bed, creating a patchwork between the plants.

We then mulched with 5 bulk bags of decorative stone, to give the display its arid/desert look.

The display only really took the highly skilled Gardens team 2 days to install, and we are very pleased with the results.

The Making of a new Nature Base Display

Yesterday we announced a new Nature Base display, specially curated by young naturalist and blogger, Jake McGowan-Lowe.

After writing his own book on bone-collecting, Jake was a natural choice as a guest curator for this display, which aims to give children a close look at some of the bones they might expect to find locally.

Jake's first job was to select which specimens from our stored collections should be included in the case. His choices were all common species, many of which can be found in London's gardens, parks and public spaces. While skulls are often the most recognisable (and collectable) part of a skeleton, other common bones were included to help beginner bone-hunters recognise their shapes.

As Jake couldn't be at the Horniman for the entire process, it was then Paolo's job to take a close look at the specimens and decide how best to mount them ready for their installation in the Gallery.

The bird skulls needed to be mounted flat onto the board, while mammal skulls are better shown side-on, with the lower jaw attached separately. This offers the best view to people looking to use the bones to ID their own finds.

Stew, our Graphic designer, printed out the first draft of the display design, to help Paolo get the positioning right. You can see here some 'lorem ipsum' or placeholder text has been used to work around while Paolo waited for Jake's final draft.

Once everything was finalised, Stew could print out the final version of the display backing and technician Becs could get to work pinning the specimens in place.

Each bone was safely secured using thin wire with a covering of plastic to protect the specimens.

This is fiddly work when it comes to some of the tiny bones involved.

The whole display was put together behind the scenes, before being brought into the gallery and slotted into position.

There was just a final bit of dusting to do to get everything looking its best...

...before the glass was carefully slid back into place and secured.

If you want to see Jake's specially curated case of bones in person, be sure to visit Nature Base and look for it beneath the sign reading 'What can you find outside?'

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